Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hubris Plus Inexperience Equals Fatal Irony

By Kathleen Rice Adams
William J. Fetterman, Capt., U.S. Army

“Give me eighty men and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux Nation.”

So said Capt. William J. Fetterman in late 1866 as he assumed command of a U.S. Army detail tasked with defending a woodcutting expedition against Indians in the Dakota Territory. A fellow officer had declined the command after mounting, and failing to sustain, a similar effort two days earlier.

Fetterman overestimated his abilities and severely underestimated his opponent.

Born in Connecticut in 1833, William Judd Fetterman was the son of a career army officer. At the age of 28, in May 1861, he enlisted in the Union Army and immediately received a lieutenant’s commission. Twice brevetted for gallant conduct with the First Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Fetterman finished the Civil War wearing the brevet rank of lieutenant colonel of volunteers.

After the war, Fetterman elected to remain with the regular army as a captain. Initially assigned to Fort Laramie with the Second Battalion of the 18th Infantry, by November 1866 he found himself dispatched to Fort Phil Kearny, near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming. Since the post’s establishment five months earlier, the local population of about 400 soldiers and 300 civilian settlers and prospectors reportedly had suffered 50 raids by small bands of Sioux and Arapaho. In response, the fort’s commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, adopted a defensive posture.

Red Cloud, ca. 1880
(photo by John K. Hillers, courtesy Beinecke
Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Fetterman immediately joined a group of other junior officers in openly criticizing Carrington’s protocol. Although the 33-year-old captain lacked experience with the Indians, he didn’t hesitate to express contempt for the enemy. His distinguished war record lent credence to his argument: Since the Indian raiding parties consisted of only twenty to 100 mounted warriors, the army should run them to ground and teach them a lesson.

Fetterman’s voice and continuing raids eventually convinced the regimental commander at Fort Laramie to order Carrington to mount an offensive. Several minor scuffles, during which the soldiers proved largely ineffective due to disorganization and inexperience, merely bolstered the Indians’ confidence. Carrington himself had to be rescued after a force of about 100 Sioux surrounded him on a routine patrol. Even Fetterman admitted dealing with the “hostiles” demanded “the utmost caution.”

Jim Bridger, at the time a guide for Fort Phil Kearny, was less circumspect. He said the soldiers “don’t know anything about fighting Indians.”

On December 19, an army detail escorted a woodcutting party to a ridge only two miles from the fort before being turned back by an Indian attack. The next day, Fetterman and another captain proposed a full-fledged raid on a Lakota village about fifty miles distant. Carrington denied the request.

On the morning of December 21, with orders not to pursue “hostiles” beyond the two-mile point at which the previous patrol had met trouble, Fetterman, a force of 78 infantry and cavalry, and two civilian scouts escorted another expedition to cut lumber for firewood and building material. Within an hour of the group’s departure from the fort, the company encountered a small band of Oglala led by Crazy Horse. The Indians taunted the army patrol, which gave chase … beyond where they had been ordered not to go.

Fetterman and his men died here. The site
now is known as Massacre Hill. (public domain photo)
The great Sioux war leader Red Cloud and a force of about 2,300 Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne waited about one-half mile beyond the ridge. In less than 20 minutes, Fetterman and all 80 men under his command died. Most were scalped, beheaded, dismembered, disemboweled and/or emasculated.

The Indians suffered 63 casualties.

Among the Sioux and Cheyenne, the event is known as the Battle of the Hundred Slain or the Battle of 100 in the Hands. Whites know it better as the Fetterman Massacre, the U.S. Army’s worst defeat on the Great Plains until Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made a similar mistake ten years later at Little Big Horn in Montana.

Whether Fetterman deliberately disobeyed Carrington’s orders or the commander massaged the truth in his report remains the subject of debate. Although officially absolved of blame in the disaster, Carrington spent the rest of his life a disgraced soldier. Fetterman, on the other hand, was honored as a hero: A fort constructed nearly 200 miles to the south was given his name seven months after his death. A monument dedicated in 1901 marks the spot where the officers and men fell.

Wishing for a Cowboy
Kathleen Rice Adams' short story "Peaches" appears in Wishing for a Cowboy: Running a ranch and fending off three meddlesome aunts leaves Whit McCandless no time, and even less patience, for the prickly new schoolmarm’s greenhorn carelessness. The teacher needs educating before somebody gets hurt.

Ruth Avery can manage her children and her school just fine without interference from some philistine of a rancher. If he’d pay more attention to his cattle and less to her affairs, they’d both prosper.

He didn’t expect to need rescuing. She never intended to fall in love.


  1. Interesting bio on Fetterman, and I enjoyed the links you provided, too. It's always interesting to read an account from each viewpoint.

    And I thoroughtly enjoyed "Peaches" in Wishing for a Cowboy!

  2. Thanks, Trail Boss! The Indian Wars produced some interesting characters. Much of the historical record indicates Fetterman showed a lot of promise as a military leader, but arrogance, brashness, and insubordination got in his way more often than not. Evidently, his success during the Civil War went straight to his head and never left. The Cheyenne account is fascinating and quite detailed.

    Red Cloud's War, of which the Fetterman battle was a part, eventually went to the Indians. After burning three forts, including Fort Phil Kearny, the Sioux and Cheyenne signed a treaty giving them the Powder River area. Peace (mostly) reigned for about eight years ... and then someone had to go and discover gold in the Black Hills. The U.S. government reneged on the treaty, and the whole mess started all over again.

  3. Great article, Tex! The marker of the ill-fated Fetterman massacre is just up the road. We had quite the crew of arrogant officers pass through this territory in the 19th Century.

    It always amazes me how superior these men felt. I don't know if it was because they were coming off a win and had the opinion if they could whip the South they could whip the Indians. But you would have thought they would have learned how difficult it is to defeat a people determined to hold tight and protect what's theirs.

    But from Fort Phil Kearny to the Connor Battlefield it's a trail of hubris leading to blood culminating in the epitome of pride and ear wax build-up (so he couldn't hear the warnings) Custer.

    It's an interesting and sad trail to follow out here. My dad and I did so a few years ago, and both of us commented how the story reads the same on every monument and roadside sign. Army officer (insert any name) claims he can wipe out the Indians with the sweep of his sword...leads men to battle...gets wiped out. We felt sorry for many on the men having to follow such pompous asses. (I'm sure many agreed with them, but many did not).

    Sorry, my fingers got to typing and wouldn't stop.


  4. It's just sad, isn't it, Rustler? Ego can lead to such waste.

    I'm trying to dig up more about Carrington's wife. She was an author, and she spent the rest of her life trying to clear her husband's name. Though the army cleared him of any wrongdoing in the debacle, public opinion turned against him and stayed that way, largely due to sensationalistic newspaper reports about the atrocities visited upon the dead soldiers by less-than-human savages. Libby Custer was FAR more successful in vindicating her husband than Mrs. Carrington was at vindicating hers.

    (BTW: It took me FOREVER to click "publish" on this post. I kept thinking, "Oh, Lord. What if my research doesn't jive with Rustler's? She's an honest-to-goodness historian from Wyoming. And she's armed." :-D )

  5. If I come across information on Mrs. Carrington, I'll pass it along now that I know you're looking. I can't promise anything, but you never know the Fort Phil Kearny gift shop is going to carry, or what someone will donate to the Museum.

    Aw shucks, Tex, you're such a thorough investigator I don't think you ever have to worry about jiving with anyone's research. But thanks! :)

  6. Another BTW: "atrocities visited upon the dead soldiers by less-than-human savages" in my comment above should have been enclosed in quotation marks. That phrase represents the prevailing attitude at the time, not my personal opinion. (I admit the Indians were a mite brutal, but I'd never refer to them as "less-than-human savages.")

  7. Well, that's hubris for you.
    Another great story, Kathleen straight from the annals of history.
    I read your article, then read all the comments. Those were interesting, too.
    Wow, what Native Americans could do to white men when killing them. I suppose the whites did the same to some extent, but I'm not sure how much.
    Disobeying orders will get you in trouble every time.
    Good piece, and as usual, very well done.

  8. Fascinating info, Kathleen. Oh and I love Peaches, too LOL. on a serious note, the savages-aren't-entirely-human attitude stems all the way back to the first explorers. Christopher Columbus thought the peoples would be easy to convert to Christianity with their beliefs in a great spirit...but because they didn't, they weren't considered equals, ever. So sad. Reading Burying My Heart at Wounded Knee should be required of every American.

  9. I so agree with that, Tanya. Dee Brown's classic has a place of honor on my keeper shelf. For a country ostensibly founded by people seeking religious freedom, it never ceases to amaze me that Americans can be so closed-minded about ... religious freedom. Religion brings out both the best and the worst in people, I suppose.

    Celia, the atrocities were pretty blatant on both sides during the Indian confrontations all across the West. Many of the native peoples in the Southwest (Apaches, in particular) learned scalping from white Americans and Mexicans, for example. As retaliation became a way of life, each side always seemed to try to outdo the other in brutality. What a horrible period in our history.


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